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Sunday Times – Forest of Dean

AA Gill, writing in the Sunday Times. Published: 18 September 2011

Trails Of The Unexpected

Convening with witches, deities, bikers and boars, our writer finds the rejuvenated soul of a nation in the Forest of Dean.

 Trunk route: AA Gill explores the forest’s sculpture trail

The forest was different here: darker, weightier, with an old lethargy; the trees crosshatched and stippled, inky green barbs of yew, the flickering scales and tense, pale trunks of beech, thick-ankled cudgels of long-neglected coppice. Ivy and moss clagged and fretted the branches, and the ground was rotting, soft, embroidered with hart’s-tongue fern, bracken and brambles.

The earth heaved and sagged into burrows and deadfalls: the holes and hacking of mines, the ancient pocks and scrabbling of Celtic and Roman ironworks that formed dank caves in gargoyle-faced rocks, painted with ferrous stain. The track is a single-file ghost through the dappled litter, marked with the fearful feet of fallow does.

I walked on, leaving the deadened voices of the others behind, until I was enveloped by the soft, secret sounds, the creaks and canny sighs of an old, old wood. Slowly, separating the senses, I became aware that something else was here with me. Something walking parallel in step, stealing in stealth, just there under the dark cover of the trees. I swallowed that sour lump of fear that is always in forests, the whispered, singsong, deadtime terror that rises like smoke in wild places. I went on, big-eyed, and the Other came with me until we reached the edge of a meadow, bright in the afternoon sun.

It was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Ents, and JK Rowling’s Forbidden Forest

I hung back in the protective gloaming. Beside me, a man’s five o’clock shadow away, a long, ruddy, thick-brushed fox high-stepped into the sunlight. He paused and looked back at me, dark mask held high, the black eyes unsurprised at our propinquity. If there was a message in his gaze I wasn’t sensitive enough to glean it. So the fox continued on alone, dainty in the high grass. I watched him till he slipped into the shadows.

Retracing my steps I got back to the coven, where a witch in her velveteen cape was holding high a chipped crystal cup in a pool of bright sunlight, under a dusty yew that must be at least a thousand years old and grows out of a cleaved rock.

I told the witch about the walk and the fox, leaving out the fear. “There you are,” she said with a Gloucester twang. “I said he had it in him. The knowledge, the sight. That was your familiar, my love, that fox. He came for you. Where else would a fox walk beside you in a wood, except in this magic place?”

The Forest of Dean is a mercurial place. It has form. Caught between the Severn and the Wye it is neither English nor Welsh. It is an inverted, secretive un-place; apart. Many people who come here once vow never to return, mention its name with a shiver. Its atmosphere is too thick with malevolence and superstition. Somebody warned me that it would be all six-fingered banjo-pluckers and cousin-coupling salt-lickers. It was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Ents, and JK Rowling’s Forbidden Forest. But for many more it is a great, green resource, an eco-soup of renewal, calm and excitement, a connection with something that has passed through the periphery of our lives, that we see only in the corners of memory, a place redolent of a nation purged and persecuted by mercenary business and modernity.

It is the front line in the fight against the future of our wooded, wild places, and the government’s plans to sell off publicly owned woodland, which have been thrown back into the undergrowth for some committee to whittle away. Forests, and this one in particular, are camouflaged and duplicitous places. They are never what they seem. This is the story of one day in the Forest of Dean.

Tom, the photographer, and I arrive at the campsite around teatime. The women in the smart information centre plus deli and gift shop tell us to park the borrowed VW Camper van under the trees and plug in. No fires, no loud music after 11, children are trying to sleep. The site is a broad, sloping field on the edge of a small town. There are electricity and lavatories for hobos, newspapers and cappuccinos for bank holiday gypsies. The campers take their vagabond status with varying degrees of self-imposed austerity. There are small, domed, 20-quid festival tents — humping holts for rutting teenagers — and elaborate nylon bungalows with separate bedrooms and annexes, lights and aerials, and collections of folding chairs with cup holders. There are the gravid camper vans for men and women with beards. In the early-evening light, through the barbecue smoke, children play one last game of tip and run, and despite all my snobbery and squeamishness, it feels rather blissful; an amateur Eden, acutely British.

We are not one of the great outdoors nations. We don’t go walkabout; camping is not in our blood. For us, camping is a comfortable national joke: collapsible tents, sodden sheets, burnt beans, malevolent cows and flashed buttocks. The point is to cram as much of the convenience of home into the outdoors as possible. It’s a cross between a car boot sale and a big girl’s game of make-believe house. In the toilet block, fathers hold up infants in Spider-Man jimjams to brush their teeth. You get the feeling that most families won’t stray far; the tent or the caravan is accomplishment enough, a small but significant annual Everest. They’re happy to have moved the familiar chores to a new setting, surrounded by trees and each other. As I lie in my sleeping bag in the roof of the camper, I can see the flicker of light and smell the congealing sausages, and hear the lowing of chat and the bursts of giggling that are the natural sounds of the British under canvas.

The next morning, we’re out with the rangers. Thousands of people visit this forest on a summer weekend — over a year, hundreds of thousands — and they all come to do something. Woods are for doing, like mountains and rivers are for doing. It’s gardens that are for being. So they come to walk with ski-poles or dogs, to eat out of Tupperware on the ground, and to cycle. We stop at the cycle hire shop, where sturdy, bouncy, mountain machines are rented out; the serious bring their own and sit round talking nuts and spokes.

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